Conflicted – When Friendships Cloud Judgement

Allegations of conflict of interest and the failure to properly investigate a complaint are some of the more difficult investigations to undertake.

Never more so than when the allegations reside at the door of the organisation’s Chief Executive Officer and the deficiencies are borne out of a friendship with the person that is the focus of the requested investigation.

This was the case that the Australian state of New South Wales’ (NSW) anti-corruption commission – the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) – investigated and reported on recently.

As ICAC noted it found:

That NSW State Emergency Service (SES) Commissioner Murray Kear engaged in corrupt conduct  by deliberately failing to properly investigate allegations against SES Deputy Commissioner Steven Pearce in  relation to the entry into two contracts, the use of SES funds to purchase roof racks and electric brakes for Mr Pearce’s car, the obtaining of an SES-paid vehicle for an SES manager and the potential falsification of diary entries because of his friendship with Mr Pearce.

The Commission found that Commissioner Kear also engaged in corrupt conduct by dismissing Deputy  Commissioner Tara McCarthy from her employment with the SES, substantially in reprisal for her making allegations about the conduct of his friend, Mr Pearce. These included the allegations concerning the  circumstances in which the SES had entered into the two contracts, Mr Pearce’s misuse of SES funds to purchase  roof racks and electric brakes for his car, Mr Pearce’s alleged misuse of his SES credit card and the alleged fabrication of diary notes.

There will be – and are – many larger investigations that ICAC have undertaken so the reporting of this matter today is not on the quantum of the issue at hand but rather the unfortunate regularity that one sees similar circumstances.

In this instance ICAC recommended that the Commissioner be dismissed for failing to properly investigate the matter.  Additionally it suggested that advice be obtained as to whether the Commissioner had taken detrimental action against the person making the complaint.

As was found to be the case here, friendships can cloud the judgement of people with responsibilities to execute.

The challenge for any organisation is to have in place appropriate conflicts of interest policies, protocols – and most importantly – culture that will prevail irrespective of the strength of individual relationships.

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